Lives Remembered

Canon Kerry Waterstone: Quiet peacemaker who broke down barriers of mistrust for thousands of young people

Rev Canon Kerry Waterstone

CANON Kerry Waterstone was one of the quiet peacemakers of the Troubles who carried a torch for tolerance and understanding during some of Ireland's darkest days.

The Irish-speaking Church of Ireland minister was the driving force behind the 'Ulster Project', which offered Catholic and Protestant teenagers the opportunity to spend time together in a safe space far from the conflict that divided them.

It was a simple idea but a radical one in the context of a Northern Ireland in the grip of violence and mistrust in 1975.

Canon Waterstone had to use all his powers of persuasion to bring Church and community leaders on board.

Fr John Forsythe told his funeral that he "brought the perfect credentials to have run into trouble from both sides - a Protestant minister who was a fiercely proud Irishman".

More than three decades on, 15,000 young people and counting having benefited from trips to America to break down stereotypes and learn about themselves and each other.

More than 15,000 young people have benefited from the Ulster Project since it was set up in 1975

Many have gone on to make telling contributions in their adult lives and contributed to a peace process that has transformed daily life for both communities.

"The truth is Canon Kerry won the hearts of both and they are forever in his debt for his grace-filled way that earned him the trust and admiration of everybody," Fr Forsythe said.

Albert Thomas Waterstone's background had been physically as far removed as possible from the north, having been brought up in a Church of Ireland community in Tralee, Co Kerry - hence the nickname 'Kerry'.

As a child he was academically bright and won scholarships to boarding schools in Drogheda and Galway before studying divinity at Trinity College Dublin.

An accomplished sportsman, he was a formidable sparring partner at the university boxing club and was awarded the coveted Trinity 'Pink' for his prowess. He would later complete formal combat training as a voluntary reservist with the Irish Defence Forces.

He also enjoyed the gentler pursuit of tennis and it was at Clontarf tennis club that a relationship with Dubliner Edie Aird would blossom into marriage.

She would be a constant source of support and motivation throughout his life and contribute greatly to the Ulster Project.

"She walked in his shadow but they were a powerful team together with hearts and minds entwined," Fr Forsythe said.

Canon Kerry Waterstone and his wife Edie

Rev Waterstone's first appointment after ordination was to St Canice's Cathedral, Kilkenny.

He then served the parishes of Borris-in-Ossory in Co Laois and Fiddown in Co Kilkenny, before settling in Tullamore in 1964 where he would spend the rest of his life.

It was a peaceful environment to carry out his ministry but with the outbreak of the Troubles a few years later, the scenes of bloody community strife related by news reports and Church colleagues began to weigh heavily on him.

Following a pastoral exchange with Episcopal minister Rev Stephen Jacobsen in the city of Manchester in Connecticut, discussions began on how practical ways of helping ease tensions.

Canon Kerry Waterstone with Episcopal minister Rev Stephen Jacobsen

During their time in the United States, Kerry and Edie had witnessed the profound effect that the ecumenical spirit of US society had on their own sons.

"Canon Waterstone felt the attitudes of teens from Northern Ireland could possibly be changed if they could see and experience the way Americans have learned to live together in their 'melting-pot' society," said Fr Forsythe.

"The simple plan was to provide a place away from the pressures of peers and society where those teens who might become the future leaders of Northern Ireland could meet and come to know one another as individuals."

After winning approval from the four main Churches, he travelled across the north to secure the cooperation of individual clergy.

And in 1975 the first group of young people to take part in the 'Ulster Project' set off for Connecticut.

Canon Kerry's son Aidan said it was a huge undertaking.

"It took a lot of persuasion and commitment and motivation by my father and my mother, going to the north and meeting Church leaders, putting the idea across," he said.

"At one stage 30 groups were going over and it developed into a huge project run essentially from their kitchen table, involving countless phone calls, letters and trips.

"That really was the mark of the man and his ability to communicate."

Fr Forsythe said he first met the Anglican cleric in 1977 when his bishop asked him to liaise on the project.

Canon Kerry Waterstone with Fr John Forsythe, NI co-ordinator of the Ulster Project, and Leslie Sage of Salt Lake City, US

"Within one hour of meeting Canon Kerry I would have trusted that man with my life," he said.

Today he co-ordinates the Ulster Project in Northern Ireland from its bases in Belfast, Derry, Enniskillen, Omagh, Castlederg and Portadown.

"Canon Kerry travelled like St Paul on a missionary journey and founded 29 centres throughout the United States," he said.

"Some lasted but a year, others withered – but a solid core of 14 centres have continued and every year they now welcome 180 Northern Ireland teenagers and team leaders to a life-changing experience.

"It cannot be measured but it should be bottled. It has a profound effect on young people.

"Not one has ever become involved in sectarian activity. Some have become active politicians and professional people - all making a difference in Northern Ireland.

"Canon Kerry had the stance of a leprechaun but he surely worked miracles in Northern Ireland from sowing seeds in young people who gained a confidence that never left them - a confidence to do good and make a country where suspicion evaporated, where people could meet and see they are no different than their neighbour."

Among the thousands of people to have fond memories of the project is East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson, who travelled to Milwaukee in 2000 as part of a group of eight Catholics and eight Protestants.

He said bonds forged during the trip have been maintained two decades on thanks to the "visionary" work of Canon Waterstone.

"It gave me a personal opportunity to expand my horizons and see what shared life in this city could be like and is becoming. I treasure those memories," he said.

DUP East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson

Canon Kerry continued to contribute to the project long after his retirement from active ministry.

He also maintained the many friendships made in the US and Ireland and enjoyed visits from students who benefited from the programme.

But while he leaves behind a remarkable legacy, he always shunned the limelight and the attention that goes with it.

"He was a leader and a charismatic person and he managed to persuade communities to take a leap into the dark, but he was also very understated about all he did - people in Tullamore wouldn't have been aware of the work he was doing," said Aidan.

Fr Forsythe said he signalled the path towards reconciliation a generation before the peace process.

"Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God in terms of sowing seeds – some grow, some don’t," he said.

"Canon Kerry sowed over 15,000 thousand seeds of peace, quietly but effectively."

Fr John Forsythe

Rev Canon Kerry Waterstone, of Lynally, Tullamore, Co Offaly, died on August 31 in his 98th year.

He was buried after a funeral service at St Catherine's Church, Hop Hill, attended by Rev Canon Isaac Delamere, Fr Joe Gallagher, Fr Martin Carley and Fr Forsythe, and officiated by Bishop of Meath and Kildare Pat Storey, whose son took part in the Ulster Project and who said he leaves behind "a legacy that keeps on contributing to peace”.

He is survived and sadly missed by his wife Edie, his children Vici, John, Aidan and Mark and their families.

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Lives Remembered